You might have stumbled upon the word somewhere in my writings: speciesism. Discrimination on base of species. I think speciesism is one of the major issues of this time. Because we humans grant ourselves more value than other animals, millions of sentient beings die a horrible death every day, and even more suffer in the horrific system called the food industry. As a result, entire ecosystems face a total collapse, of which we cannot even conceive the consequences yet.
Funny, that despite this all, most people haven’t even heard of the term speciesism before. I could of course refer you to Wikipedia, but since that would be as exclting as reading the Civil Code, I thought to just write a nice and concise article myself.
In this article I’ll explain
- What speciesism is
- Why it is unjust on both a moral and rational level
- Why it has to be banned from this planet
- How we would put that to practice.
Let’s start with a definition: what is speciesism exactly?
The Definition of Speciesism
The term ‘speciesism’ is introduced quite recently, in 1970. Richard Ryder, a British writer, psychologist and animals’ advocate, was astonished to see how the ‘60’s raised awareness for topics such as racism and sexism, but that people appeared to be oblivious to the suffering of non-human living beings. While Richard was pondering over this issue in his bathtub in Oxford, he suddenly arrived at the name for this phenomenon: speciesism! He wrote a pamphlet and spread it all over Oxford. There it (both the pamphlet and the term) was picked up by the young philosopher Peter Singer, who gave the term its official definition:
“A prejudice or bias in favour of the interests of members of one’s own species
and against those of members of other species.”
Which, simply put, comes down to this: Speciesism = discrimination on the basis of species.
Where racism discriminates on the basis of race, and sexism on the basis of sex or gender, speciesism discriminates on the basis of species. The most common and most destructive form of speciesism is the belief that being a human is enough reason to grant you more rights than other living beings. Which to my opinion is as morally wrong as granting more rights to white people or men.
Speciesism at Work: Using Animals
Speciesism is the standard quo in our society. We eat meat, fish, dairy and eggs. We buy accessories made from leather, and in weekends entire families migrate to zoos and circuses to have a fun day out.
It is true that many people do not have a clue about the suffering behind the walls of factory farms and zoos. But even if we know, we apparently find our own pleasure and ease more important than the lives of billions of other feeling and thinking creatures. Who hasn’t seen the pictures and undercover video’s of fur farms and slaughterhouses? Still we continue to support these industries.
We continue to eat animals because we like the taste of them. We continue to buy skins animals because it fits us so well. And we continue to lock animals up because we find it so entertaining to look at them. If we’d swap the animals for humans, we’d be put in prison for the rest of our lives. But unfortunately for them, they belong to a different species, and that seems to close the case.
We can do without – really
It is true that we ate meat during our evolutionary past. But we should take note of the context here. In the ice age, a successful hunt could mean the difference between live or death. Thanks to the meat it provided we did not starve, and their skins protected ours against the barren cold. But we are not living in the ice age anymore (far from – it’s the 12thof October and it’s 25 degrees Celcius here in The Netherlands. It scares the hell out of me). We got supermarkets on every corner on the street, and thanks to the invention of vitamin B12 supplements and H&M, we don’t need animals to survive anymore.
The scientific proof is so overwhelming that even governments agree: our bodies do not need animal products to be and stay healthy [1,2,3]. In fact, a plant-based diet yields more health benefits than a diet rich in animal products [4,5,6,7].
Speciesism and using animals is however engraved in our culture, and there are few people who question the issues – something that you’d well expect from the highly intelligent and powerful species we are.
The All-Powerful Man
Being Homo sapiens sapiens, or ‘thinking human’, we are blessed (or cursed, depending on the situation) with a significantly well developed brain. We can do quite some advanced stuff with this ball of fatty substance. Stuff that we have never seen any other animal do. We dig up dinosaurs, build spaceships and smartphones and nuclear weapons, and we think about what John thinks about Jack after he told Mary last week that Jane wants to have a divorce. Pretty next level shit.
Our intelligence also enables us to dominate other animals. There is no animal that can win the battle of power, because we outsmart them all. You’d think that with that power comes great responsibility. We should treat animals like we should treat children. But reality is way different. We use animals for our own profit, and justify this with speciesist ideas and beliefs.
The thing is that there is no rational nor logical argument for speciesism. And this becomes very obvious if you look at it from a non-human perspective. That’s what the next part is about. Get ready for some gruesome thought experiments!
Why Speciesism is Morally Unjust
Perhaps you still ask yourself, why speciesism is illogical and immoral. I’d happily explain it through two arguments, which I titled The Alien Takeover and Torturing Babies.
1. The Alien Takeover
Or: “Do not do unto others what you would not want them do unto you.”
Imagine this. Tomorrow there will be a UFO landing in your backyard. Hyperintelligent aliens take over the entire planet and within no-time they capture all human beings, including you.
There you are, sitting in a barren cage.
Would you find it justified that, because they are more intelligent than you are, they can do with you whatever they want? That they experiment on you, breed humans for their meat, or that they cut you open alive, take out your organs and process you into sushi (“Delicious, maki with prefrontal cortex!”)? Basically, that they can do to you what humans do to animals today? It would literally be your worst nightmare.
Now of course, you are not cutting up fish alive – that is barbarian. But you arethe one who pays for this shit. By buying fish, you give the company what it needs (moneys) to pay the salary of the one who does the dirty work. You keep the process intact. Just like the whole alien community pays the aliens that torture you. Not their responsibility, right?
If this didn’t convince you of speciesism being immoral, and you still think that animals deserve less moral rights because of their cognitive capacities, then the next argument is for you. Let’s torture a baby.
2. Torturing Babies
Quite some people still deem humans more worth than other animals, because of our intelligence. Some people consciously or unconsciously think that because we are better at stuff like language, empathy, planning and abstract thinking, that it is kind of okay to put pigs between iron bars for the rest of their lives and humans not.
Ethics and rationality aside – even if you would follow this line of reasoning, it doesn’t even logically hold ground. The problem with taking cognitive skills as a premise for moral rights, is that it would have quite some unpleasant consequences for babies and people with a cognitive impairment.
Here I took an animal – a chicken – and compared it with a human baby on several cognitive tasks. I intentionally chose the chicken in this example, because if they have more cognitive abilities than human babies, then the intellect-argument also doesn’t count for even more intelligent species such as pigs, horses and dolphins. Hereafter I’ll share my thoughts on the consequences for the baby if we’d apply the intellectual argument for our own species as well.
Let’s face it: the average chicken is significantly more competent on a verbal level than a human baby. A chicken can produce more about 30 to 40 different sounds, which all have a unique meaning . And I didn’t even mention nonverbal communication here. The communicative skills of a baby on the other hand can be summed up as “I’m hungry”, “Omg”, “I want you to pick me up” and “I pooped in my pants”, and that’s about it.
Yes you read that right. A chicken is capable of planning for the future. Chickens can wait for a reward so that they get a bigger reward in the future . A baby cannot even control it’s own sphincter. The self-control that the chicken shows is also known as delay of gratification, something that a human child learns to do when it’s about 4 years old  (this is a great video where you can see in action in human children: the Marshmallow Test).
Yup, a chicken is more empathic than a baby. The capacity to feel empathy for another person also develops when a child is about 4 years of age [11,12]. A baby does not have a clue that you are in pain when you bumped your toe. A chicken on the other hand reacts distressed when one of her chicks is harmed , which indicates empathy.
4. Abstract thinking
Chickens can count. Better even: chicks can count. In this video you see how a chick directly aims for the barrier where more orange balls lay. Researchers found they can even add and subtract . It also appears that chickens, just like humans, ‘read from left to right’ when counting .
Do check out this one as well:
What this Means
(The first paragraph may be skipped by sensitive, visually oriented persons.)
What would it mean if we would follow the intelligence-argument for our own species, and would treat babies the same as we treat our chickens? You can think of ‘meat babies’ in factory farms, where their legs collapse under the weight of their bodies. Broken bones, open wounds from sores and their little foot soles peeled raw by the burning ammonia of the feces on the floor. Their short and miserable lives are then followed by slaughter, where they will be hung upside down for processing. Some (or perhaps even all ) will have their throats cut or get boiled while fully conscious. Also consider the babies in the egg-industry, where the boys will be shredded alive.
For the stubborn speciesist arguing that babies have the potential to become an intelligent human being: you can replace the word ‘baby’ at all times by ‘cognitively impaired person’. Now of course I don’t say that cognitively impaired people are babies, but I believe you get my point.
As you have read, the intelligence argument for speciesism doesn’t hold ground. It is illogical, irrational and above all, immoral. Jeremy Bentham agrees with me on that matter. To quote him on this issue:
[…] the question is not, Can they reason? nor, Can they talk? but, Can they suffer?
Or, as I’d say, “Are they conscious?”. Most animals that we lock up, mistreat and slaughter, obviously are conscious and can suffer: they show emotions such as fear, joy and sadness [17,18]. They can experience pain and distress, and can get bored out of their minds . I think it is high time to acknowledge these facts and act on them.
Speciesist: to Be or Not to Be
You may say that speciesism follows from a lack of empathy and our failure of logical reasoning. We apparently cannot empathise with a chicken or a pig, or at least not at the moments that it really matters: when standing in the supermarket or sitting in a restaurant. Despite our amazing intelligence, we often fail on locial reasoning, and our desire for convenience and pleasure is often stronger than our moral values.
It’s sad. But the good news is: we are still Homo sapiens – thinking humans. It is never too late to learn and act on it.
So it is totally up to you. Do you choose the veggie burger or vegan dish in the restaurant, or will you remain a slave of your own impulses? It’s your amazing brain. Do something with it.
Now I am looking for a word that means the opposite of speciesism. A better word for anti-speciesism, so to say. With ‘anti-speciesism’ I immediately think of an image of Grumpy Cat, because of the negative feel of the word ‘anti’. I don’t think such an image will cause a revolution in our speciesist world.
I’m searching for a positive word, because anti-speciesism is positive in itself: pro equal moral treatment of animals. My research kind of always comes down to ‘veganism’. Which makes sense: someone becomes a vegan* because he or she empathises with other animal species and acts on the logics behind anti-speciesism: because other living beings have consciousness and feelings, we should live in a way that not unnecessary harms them. By definition, a true non-speciesist cannot be anything else than follow a vegan lifestyle.
However, I feel veganism is more the practical side, the logical consequence of anti-speciesism. The theory or arguments that it is built upon does not have a name yet. Or does it?
If you got any idea of a better term existing out there, please let me know. Otherwise I have to just invent one myself.
Conclusion & How to Live a Non-Speciesist Life
The moral (ha!) of this story: speciesism is groundless and there is no justification for the use and mistreatment of animals. I hope you became a wiser human being after reading this article (if only because now you’ve learned how awesome chickens actually are), and that it gave you something to think about. For example, what you’ll put on your plate for your next meal. If we stop buying and eating animal products, we can create a world beyond speciesism.
On that note, I do want to say one more thing.
I do not think people who eat meat or other animal products are bad people. Using animals and speciesist thinking are so deeply rooted in our system that it is natural that it takes time to change our thoughts and behaviour.
You do not have to go vegan overnight. But what I would appreciate a whole lot, and with me all the animals you will potentially ‘use’ in the future: use your empathic abilities in the supermarket, when you are find yourself at the meat section. Or in the restaurant, when you are reading through the menu. Base your decisions on your moral values and the logic that follows from it. Choose the burger that no one had to suffer for. Give the vegan dish on the menu a try (you very well may be pleasantly surprised).
Changing habits is hard, I know. I’ve been eating meat and what not for 25 years before I went vegan. Holding on to old patterns feels safe and comfortable and doesn’t require so much effort. But sometimes we have to urge ourselves to follow our ideals and let go of tradition and convenience. And as a psychologist I can tell you: the more often you choose the moral option, the easier (and tastier!) it wil get. That’s just how the brain works, as it creates new habits.
If you do not change, nothing changes. So be the change. Thank you.
Hungry for more? You may like to read on:
- Vegan for the Planet (why we should go vegan to save the future of our planet, included our own ass)
- Facts on vegan protein (my answer to the question, “Where do you get your protein?”)
- Pointing back (your answer to the question, “Where do you get your protein?”)
* Not everyone who follows a plant-based diet is necessarily anti-speciesist. You can ‘eat vegan’ because of health reasons, dietary preferences or environmental purposes instead of ethical ones.
Photo by Alfons Spoler
This post is also available in NL